A “tough on crime” approach to youth justice won’t work

By Fatima Measham

I once caught an airborne plastic chair right in the head. I had only just received my graduate diploma in secondary education, teaching at a state school in the western outskirts of Melbourne. I am barely five-foot tall.

I was mulling over disturbances earlier this year at Victorian youth detention centres in Parkville and Malmsbury when this memory surfaced. The incidents involved damage to property and escape attempts, one of which was successful. A significant police response resolved the breakdown, but underlying issues, such as accommodation, detention conditions, and the overall thrust of the Victorian juvenile justice system, simmered for weeks after.

In my memory, a student had flung the chair in the middle of an altercation with a classmate. It was late in the day and I was filling in for an absent colleague. In a stroke of luck one of the vice-principals was walking past on one of his afternoon rounds, probably drawn to the shouting. He quickly defused the situation by removing the more agitated students from the room.

I grew fond of many students in my short-lived teaching career, and there were moments when I felt completely at home in the classroom. But there were also a handful of students who featured in teachers’ tales, told in the way that soldiers might talk of the frontline – with a mixture of regret and helplessness at larger forces beyond their control. Kids who play with lighters, who kick at doors, who boast about weekend encounters with police, who turn up in the morning reeking of alcohol.

These behaviours can be contextualised. Research into the adolescent brain indicates that the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning, is in flux, as are its connections to regions associated with impulse. The amygdala, which plays a role in emotional memory, is overactive in teens, reflecting the intensity of their feelings of aggression, fear and depression. The reward circuitry of their brain is peer-driven and thrill-seeking. Until the age of 22, our brain is still developing the connections that lead to emotion regulation and impulse control.

It is difficult to see how punitive, stigmatising experiences in detention make rehabilitation more likely.

I saw something like terror in that student’s eyes when the chair hit my head. I think he and I both understood in that moment how easy it is to make a profound mistake when you are young and stupid.

This is borne out by studies that show an age-crime curve. While persons aged 15 to 19 are more likely to be processed by police than any other group, usually for offences against property, the rates of offending peak in late adolescence and decline in early adulthood.

There is a small “core” that don’t grow out of criminality and reoffend later in life, but more significantly, most young offenders go on to live law-abiding lives. These require more nuanced approaches than treating all young offenders as hardened.

If most teenage offenders don’t turn to a life of crime, and studies suggest that to be the case, then it is difficult to see how punitive, stigmatising experiences in detention make rehabilitation more likely.

In The Monthly, former criminal defence lawyer Russel Marks illustrates the pattern that escalates the prospect of violence in youth detention centres: prolonged and regular lockdowns, strip searches, use of tear gas, chronic staff shortage and turnover.

Successive governments knew about the problems at the Parkville facility for more than a decade, according to a former deputy ombudsman. Yet it’s the young people there who must bear the burden of civility – to comply somehow with degrading or stressful conditions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Victorian Government’s response to the riots focused on asserting control and managing bad publicity. Treating minors as if they are adults, in language and in policy, flouts legal conventions in favour of an anachronistic response.

Youth offenders require a higher duty of care; their legal status as minors secures this. In the developed world, youth justice systems adopt a welfare model that includes specialty courts, restorative justice conferencing, and diversions. Non-custodial penalties are preferred; remand in detention is meant to be a last resort. They are not to be detained within adult correctional facilities.

A young person ending up in the youth justice system is the cumulation of a series of failures, only part of which are his or her own.

Decades of jurisprudence have also established that the psychosocial immaturity and complex needs of young offenders are significant considerations. Many of the kids on remand, like those in Parkville and Malmsbury, come from backgrounds of disadvantage: poverty, Indigeneity, intellectual disability, trauma or a history with child protection services. Most have untreated substance abuse problems or mental health issues.

What is critical to a youth justice system, then, is not just correction for an offence, but a larger correction or mitigation against the circumstances that lead to offence. This requires an evidence-based, holistic approach that can see further than the myopia of “tough on crime” rhetoric.

A young person ending up in the youth justice system is the cumulation of a series of failures, only part of which are his or her own. An exclusively punitive response not only aggravates such failures at cost to young lives, it absolves governments of their own culpability and is a disservice to the wider community.